Basketball Preview: Penn State vs. The Team From New Jersey
When we last saw the Nittany Lions, they were spending the afternoon of New Year’s Eve going to war in Madison. While there were a few fleeting minutes where Penn State ran with the big boys, the fact is Wisconsin has a very strong likelihood of playing in the Final Four. That meant that even though it played a very good game (save for Brandon Taylor’s incredible disappearing act), Penn State still lost by 17.
That’s okay! Wisconsin has National Player of the Year candidate and Twitter troll Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes has developed a legit three, and we still hung in for large swaths. Penn State shot 57.1% from inside the arc and 41.7% from three, both of which are excellent numbers. DJ Newbill hung 29 points on a team ranked 18th in Defensive Efficiency. Wisconsin just happened to shoot an absurd 70.6% from inside (Kaminsky, Hayes and Sam Dekker will do that) and 46.2% from three.
The Badgers are scary good, but Penn State showed that they are, definitively, for real.
Tonight’s opponent, Rutgers, is not Wisconsin.
The Enemy (is Everywhere)
The biggest name on Rutgers’ roster still belongs to their coach. Eddie Jordan, a Rutgers alum, title winner with the Lakers, and former below-average NBA coach, took over the program last season. The team struggled to a 12-21 record in their final season in the American Athletic Conference, and may end this year with a very similar record. The Scarlet Knights are 8-6 heading in to their second-ever Big Ten matchup and, much like Penn State, the bulk of their resume has been built on soft wins.
Unlike the Lions, Rutgers scheduled four challenging non-conference games, giving them the 111th ranked non-conference schedule to Penn State’s 309th. Those games produced a 1-3 record, with the Scarlet Knights gutting out a close win over a much-improved Vanderbilt squad, but getting thoroughly dominated by George Washington (against whom Penn State’s lone signature win thus far came), Virginia and Seton Hall. Ugly losses to St. Peter’s, St. Francis and Northwestern are also relative scarlet letters on Rutgers’ resume (pun totally intended).
Rutgers is a relatively solid defensive team, ranking 102nd in the nation in Defensive Efficiency. They hold opponents to a 45.4% effective field goal percentage, good for 81st in the country, are 32nd in the country in block rate. They also held No. 3 Virginia, who happen to be 4th in the nation in Offensive Efficiency, to just 45 points in their matchup at the Barclays Center. However, as good of a defensive showing as that was, it exemplifieid Rutgers’ biggest weakenss: they are brutal on offense. Virginia held them to an embarassing 26 points in that matchup, and they’ve shot below 30% as a team from three this season. As bad as they’ve been outside, they’ve been even worse from two with a brutal 42.9% field goal percentage from shots inside.
They are led on the ball by Myles Mack, the 5’10” senior point guard who ranks 55th in the nation in assist rate despite being surrounded by some terribly inefficient ballers. He’s also 78th in steal percentage, and leads the team in scoring at 13.9 points per game. However, his effective field goal percentage would rank just below John Johnson and Donovon Jack’s this year at 48.7%. Like I said, Rutgers’ offense isn’t very good. Mack will get his, especially against Shep Garner’s team-worst 103.6 defensive rating, but he doesn’t instill fear like you’d expect a team’s leading scorerer to. Big men Junior Etou, Greg Lewis and D.J. Foreman will contibute as well, and each has posted an above-average defensive rating this year. Unfortunately for them, Penn State’s big men have carried the lightest load of anyone offensively.
Forward Kadeem Jack is the most interesting player for Rutgers. Last seen being removed from the starting lineup for missing a team breakfast, then getting benched for poor performance/lack of effort/jacking up terrible shots/everything, he is their second option, but highest usage player despite having the 2nd-worst true shooting percentage out of their top five. When he wants, Jack is a solid scorer down low and a bit of a offensive glass eater, but he has fallen off hard this year, and his tendencies have done a strange reverse. After attempting just three shots from outside the perimeter in a three year career, Jack has taken 27 this season. While he’s hitting at a decent 33.3% rate, he is just 2/10 in his last three games (arbitrary endpoints, I know), and those shots are typically taken outside of the offense Jordan has implemented. He has become content with jump shots far too often of late, with a plurality of his shots (45.1% of ’em, to be precise) coming off of mid-range jumpers. If you’re efficient, that is a dangerous weapon in your arsenal. Jack, however, shoots a Josh Smith-ian 21.5% on two point jumpers according to Hoop-Math, by far the worst of any player on the team with at least 50 field goal attempts. If Jack wants to shoot, let him. If he attacks the rim (he finishes at a much-stronger 54.2% from there), he’s a threat. Plain and simple.
How To Make Them Disappear Completely
Keep doing exactly what they’re doing. Penn State is 64th in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, 116th on the other side of the ball, and draws fouls at a strong rate. Penn State’s two biggest weaknesses are forcing turnovers (292nd) and conceding fouls (223rd in FTA/FGA), but is above average in just about everything else. The Nittany Lions have an elite scorer to feed in D.J. Newbill, a strong second option in Shep Garner, who is as fearless driving on Frank Kaminsky as he is launching a three from Talor Battle territory, and an inconsistent third scorer in Brandon Taylor, who will need to find himself for the Lions to make a run to March. Continue playing solid defense against Rutgers’ paltry offensive attack, avoid the long twos that, for some strange reason, plagued them as they tried to come back against Wisconsin, don’t foul too much (Mack, Etou and impressive freshman Mike Williams all shoot 80% or better from the charity stripe), and deny Mack consistent looks, and Rutgers will fall. That last one is the biggest key. Everything runs through their diminutive floor general, and stopping him stops the whole team.
We here at Onward State are not the biggest fans of The Team From New Jersey, so beating them at home once again would be nice (let’s just hope it’s less of a nailbiter than the Handegg matchup was). Rutgers has a solid defense, but Penn State can and will score on them. Newbill is The Truth, and will not be denied by just about anyone. Rutgers also just cannot score, and if Geno Thorpe or D.J. Newbill take more turns guarding Mack, it’ll be tough for him to put up points. Rutgers will try to frustrate the star shooting guard all day, but Newbill and a revitalized Brandon Taylor push Penn State to a 65-52 win in New Brunswick.
The game tips at 7:30 p.m. at the Louis Brown Athletic Center in Piscataway.
Photo: Mitchell Wilston